Advocate For Women Students Dismissed

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: An article Tuesday regarding MIT’s dismissal of Lynn Roberson gave the wrong year for Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo’s arrival at MIT. Colombo was appointed Dean for Student Life effective Aug. 18, 2008, not Aug. 18, 2009.

Since MIT opened its doors to its first woman student in 1873, the Institute has increasingly worked to provide a wealth of support to both its undergraduate and graduate female students. With the recent layoff of Lynn Roberson, long-time assistant director and advocate of Women’s Programs and Support, however, one aspect of this support has been eliminated for the second time.

In the spring of 2008, Lynn Roberson’s position was suggested to be eliminated, but students successfully organized a letter-writing campaign addressed to Larry G. Benedict, then the Dean for Student Life, to keep Roberson in her part-time job serving the community (see letters, page 15).

Although Roberson declined an interview, Sidney Tsai G said that “women were very upset” when they heard of Roberson’s summer layoff. Tsai, a co-organizer of the Discussion on Graduate Women held with the MIT Division of Student Life administration this past August, also described that involved students were “especially upset because we didn’t have time to advocate” like in the spring of 2008 with the letter campaign.

Roberson (pronounced ROBE-er-sun) organized a large number of luncheons and events for the women community at MIT and provided personal counseling for female students. She had been working in this position part-time for over 20 years and was a 2005 Infinite Mile Recipient for “Commitment to the Development of Students and Staff.”

No official statement on the layoff was released publicly, but, on July 9, Roberson notified many students in an e-mail of the loss of her position writing, “I am both sad and shocked about the news, but I also am most concerned about you women students whom I have served for so many years.”

In her July message, Roberson suggested that students continue to reach out to other staff and faculty for support as well as SAO, Student Support Services (S3), the Office of Minority Education, and the Ombuds office.

Roberson wrote in the e-mail, “Please use this as an opportunity to work together and support each other… Know that you as women students hold a place of importance at MIT that deserves recognition.”

In a series of eleven letters from campus groups, students argued to keep Roberson on the basis of her heavy involvement with the MIT community and long history of an enthusiastic dedication to service during her first layoff in the spring of 2008. Because of their efforts, Roberson was not laid off that spring, but was rather assigned a new position, moving from “Coordinator of Programs and Support for Women Students” to her most recent title of “Assistant Director of Women’s Programs and Support” under the Student Support Services.

Student concern over departure

Because of their success in previously securing her position at MIT, Roberson and students alike expressed great shock in the summer 2009 layoff. Similarly, several students interviewed expressed discontent that the layoff was done in the summer, when many of the undergraduate students were off campus.

Some students expressed concern that perhaps Chris Colombo, the new dean for student life (effective Aug. 18, 2009), was unaware of the large student effort to keep Roberson on campus during the spring 2008 letter campaign.

In a number of interviews, undergraduates and graduate students claimed Roberson was a source of inspiration and support and expressed concern that she was laid off. Elena L. Glassman G, a co-organizer of the 2008 letter campaign, described Roberson as “one of the few people who could really truly address the social aspects of being a student and women’s issues.“

Sunny S. Wicks G said that “something about Lynn was so special, and she could make me believe I was special. I don’t know who to go to instead for that kind of inspiration.”

Amy Banzaert G, who has a 21 month-old son, expressed a particular concern in the potential loss of the efforts that Roberson made to connect the “grad mom” community at MIT.

Banzaert said that it “can be very isolating to be a mother and a graduate student trying to do good science at the same time as having sleepless nights dealing with diaper rash.” Banzaert said that Roberson “absolutely did try to advocate for us and help us advocate for ourselves” by initiating and maintaining the regular grad mom lunches.

Shamarah J. Hernandez ’12, said that she found Roberson “always extra encouraging” and that “the [undergraduate women’s orientation] committee took [the news of the layoff] kind of hard.”

Support Services Continue

Although Dean Colombo declined to comment on the layoff, Senior Associate Dean for Students Barbara A. Baker, Assistant Director of Student Activities Alicia E. Ewin, and Senior Associate Dean for Student Activites Jed W. Wartman said that MIT plans to continue its dedication to women’s support services, despite Roberson’s recent layoff.

According to Erwin, previous programs related to women’s support will continue, including monthly graduate women’s lunches, grad mom lunches, the women’s graduate student orientation, the undergraduate women’s orientation (which already occurred), undergraduate freshman women’s lunches, monthly women’s dessert night, as well as new initiatives to reach out to upperclassmen women, although she said that the Division for Student Life is “not looking to create new programs without knowing what students want and need.”

Erwin said that later this fall there will also be a survey given to graduate women to better gauge their expectations for support and needs (organized by Sidney Tsai), and that a similar survey may be also implemented with the undergraduate women’s community as well.

Baker also said in the interview that many preexisting services such as S3, MIT Medical, and a number of other support services will still be available to all students. Erwin suggested that grad moms also utilize “FamilyNet,” an existing program at MIT, as an additional source of support.